Hot Tots

So bad that they’re good; unwanted scraps that everyone can’t get enough of; terminally uncool to the point of being a new trend. Tater tots live in a world of conflicting extremes, forever at odds with themselves and the public at large. We have Ore-Ida to thank for the innovation in 1951, when new French fry cutting technology gave birth to immaculate shoestrings while leaving mountains of potato slivers and small pieces in its wake. That excess became the foundation of tots as we know them, formed and fried into something entirely new.

Any kid growing up in the 90s had more than their fair share of the crispy potato bites, piled up on cafeteria trays and smothered with ketchup, in lieu of any other vegetable-like matter. I remember my first encounter in first grade, when I got to the front of the line and found the paper boat of tots before me. These weren’t the thick potato wedges I wanted, and not even the smooth mashed potato puree that I tolerated. With great trepidation, I took a microscopic bite, chewed once, chewed twice… And spit it into the trash. For the rest of the day, I languished in the nurse’s office, convinced I was sick, and that those demonic tater tots had done me in.

Drama aside, I came to learn after many years that tots were not all bad. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. Consistent, reliable, affordable, and ageless, they’re an accommodating neutral base for toppings and dips of all types. Now that Millennials are “grown up” and seeking solace in their kitchens, tater tots are finally reaching their full potential. No longer reject spud shards but genuinely worthy starters and snacks, I, too, have come around to the ways of the tot.

That said, I don’t crave them. I wouldn’t go out of my way to try them, nor are they my first, second, or third choice on a menu. It needs to be something really special to catch my eye… Like the cauliflower tots served at Better Half Coffee & Cocktails here in Austin. These savory nuggets are square, fried to crispy perfection, and served alongside a silky purple beet ketchup. Sadly, they’re not vegan thanks to the generous application of eggs and cheese, but I couldn’t get them out of my mind after one visit. They certainly made a more lasting impression than the date I was on at the time.

I could sell these as a healthier, lower-carb option that’s naturally gluten-free and higher in protein, but this isn’t about getting the most nutritious snack. Let’s be honest: No one eats tater tots for the health benefits, so caulitots shouldn’t try to be anything other than delicious. That is where they truly excel. The outsides are browned to a satisfyingly crunchy finish, while the interiors remain moist, creamy, and slightly gooey thanks to the inclusion of vegan cheese shreds.

For a recipe worth more than nostalgic value, caulitots truly elevate the humble bar snack to a new level. Though you could serve them with regular old ketchup, BBQ sauce, plant-based honey mustard, or even ranch dressing, give the beet ketchup a try, at least once. It’s better than your average dip, and these upscale tots deserve the best, as do you.

Continue reading “Hot Tots”

Stuffed to the Gills

Just like people, shiitake mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes.

Uniformity might be prized for mass-produced, cultivated mushrooms grown indoors, but greater flavor can be found in nature. Forest-grown Sugimoto shiitake are exposed to greater variation in sun, rain, and wind which in turn creates a greater depth of the flavor, richer texture, and higher nutritional value. This method has withstood the test of time, serving Japanese growers well for over 1000 years with countless bountiful harvests to show for it.

Since it is impossible to control the weather, these wild shiitake mushrooms develop into two primary classifications, largely dependent on the season: Donko and Koshin.

Donko are gathered before the mushroom can fully bloom or open up. These shiitake are a thicker, chewier, and meatier, but smaller overall. The name itself from the Chinese word for “winter,” as they’re harvested primarily in the cooler months from January to April.

Koshin, bearing flatter but larger caps, are named after the word for “fragrant.” Brilliantly aromatic, they produce an ambrosial bouquet of umami before you even take a bite. Fully mature when harvested, they’re inactive during the summer months due to the high temperatures, but flourish in fall for plentiful late autumn yields.

Although they’re born of the same spores, the mushrooms change shape and texture depending on the time of harvest.

Both varieties perform splendidly in a wide range of dishes, but to maximize the unique qualities of such delicately nuanced, artisanal products, it’s important to know their strengths. The best way to honor the work of the 600 family farmers, who painstakingly nurturing these spores deep in the mountains, is to treat their shiitake with care and respect.

Utilizing the inherent textural advantages the Donko shiitake has to offer in creating a firmer, juicier bite, they’re the only type of dried mushroom that can be brought back to life as a satisfying base for stuffing. Most others would buckle under the weight if dressed with a mere teaspoon topping, but these sturdy caps stand up to the demands as superlative finger foods.

Quick, homemade nut cheese dazzles with fresh herbs and a luscious creamy texture that seems to defy its dairy-free components. Vegan yogurt adds a slightly tangy, funky note, like earthy yet mild goat cheese, perfectly paired with the rich umami mushrooms underneath. Thick enough to spread on a bagel like cream cheese, it has a distinctly buttery quality thanks to a touch of nutritional yeast and sweet white miso paste. To enhance the aroma that might be lessened in the Donko shiitake, additional dried shiitake powder gives this schmear an irresistible final savory punch.

Grown in harmony with nature, both Koshin and Donko Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms lend that same symphonic balance to every dish.

Continue reading “Stuffed to the Gills”

Fresh is Best

Salsa, literally meaning “sauce” in Spanish, is every bit as versatile as that all-encompassing name suggests. Traditional renditions are as simple as chopped tomatoes and peppers with a pinch of salt, but there are no rules for this savory dance. Spicy or mild, acidic or alkaline, crisp or creamy, smooth or chunky; there’s a taste and texture to complement every meal.

In fact, modern salsas can just as easily be sweet and fruity to pair with dessert, not a vegetable in sight. The one universal rule to salsa is that no matter the ingredients, they must always be fresh. Forget about the shelf-stable stuff collecting dust on supermarket shelves; it may call itself salsa, but it sure doesn’t live up to this piquant condiment’s proud legacy.

You know you have a truly great salsa when you want to eat it with a spoon. No chips are needed to start the party with Sam’s Fresh Salsa, which is every bit as bold and flavorful as the fresh-cut produce that goes into each chilled package.

Inspired by the premier “Sam’s Fresh Salsa Blogger Recipe Challenge,” I decided to cut out the formalities and turn it into something I really could serve by the bowlful. Made from tart tomatillos, lime juice, garlic, peppers, and cilantro, the salsa verde immediately stood out to me as a versatile stand-alone snack and recipe starter. Bright, light, and refreshing with a subtle hint of jalapeño spice, it sings of summer’s bounty. The only other thing I can think of that might rival that fresh experience is gazpacho.

You see where I’m going here, right?

Gazpacho Verde is creamy and subtly sweet, closely aligned to classic Andalusian gazpacho, which is at least partially blended and surprisingly rich. Stale bread and a generous pour of extra virgin olive oil traditionally thicken this cool contender, but this Tex-Mex twist employs the luscious green flesh of ripe, buttery avocados instead.

As summer heats up, this is one instantly gratifying dish that will help you stay cool. Don’t touch that stove and put away your pans; this no-cook recipe only needs a brief blitz in the blender. For those really sweltering days, there’s no shame serving it in ice-filled glasses with a splash of vodka for a piquant Bloodless Mary.

You can get more fresh inspiration by checking out Sam’s Fresh Salsa on Facebook and Instagram, too. You can find them at ShopRite, Acme, and Safeway stores. Wish me luck in the contest!

Continue reading “Fresh is Best”

Peas, Love, and Hummus

Hummus has been a historically divisive food, causing rifts between nations that have occasionally escalated into all-out wars. I’m not here to start a fight about who made it first or best, though. Today, I’d like to shine a light on how it can be just as powerfully unifying in the right hands. Pardon the pun, but it’s true; everyone just needs to give peas a chance.

Years ago when my dad took up residence overseas for his job, I thought for sure that this was the beginning of the end. What family could withstand such severe, prolonged separation? This was before the age of COVID quarantines of course, but still, it was hard to imagine how any relationship could survive the prolonged distance.

Before we had Zoom, we had Skype. Like clockwork, every weekend, I somehow convinced my omnivorous father to cook with me, creating a recipe simultaneously yet separately. I would make mine for lunch in Connecticut, while he would enjoy his for dinner in Germany. There were a few memorable gems that he still makes today, which is truly a feat for a man of few favorite foods and little interest in cooking. If I had to pick one single greatest hit, it would have to be hummus.

Both of us ate hummus by the gallon at the time, yet he had never so much as considered going straight to the source and starting from scratch. Now, years later, both of us are so thoroughly spoiled by homemade hummus that it’s become impossible to go back to store-bought. Just like that, one simple recipe brought us back together, in our isolated kitchens divided by thousands of miles and a number of time zones.

Recreating this basic bean dip together for the first time as an early Father’s Day celebration was probably more of a treat for me than him. Seeing how he took that essential formula and made it his own was even more gratifying than the rich, savory, and creamy taste.

Adding vegan chicken bouillon for an additional depth of flavor and all the salt it needs, he adds volumes of flavor with this concentrated umami bomb. From there, he adds a splash of liquid smoke to give the creamy mixture an uncanny baba ganoush character, without fussing with any roasted eggplant. A bare hint of spice creeps in on the back end, providing a subtle warmth that lingers after every bite. It’s a brilliant, harmonious combination that’s both simple on paper, yet stunningly complex on the palate.

To all the fathers and people who love them, Happy Father’s Day. I hope you’re all so lucky to have someone to make hummus with, virtually or in-person.

Continue reading “Peas, Love, and Hummus”

Cornball Humor

Bestowing the title of “Crunchiest Snack Ever” on any single tidbit makes a big statement, especially when that honor comes from Whole Foods Magazine. While the exact criteria for judging such a lofty achievement remains undefined, the fact is that Love Corn is a resoundingly crisp, crackling, munchable savory treat.

For something as simple as fresh corn, salt, and oil, these little morsels make a big impact. There’s no denying that signature crunchy texture, but the underlying flavor is just as noteworthy. Naturally sweet like peak harvest summer corn, accentuated with just the right touch of salinity, even most plain variety packs a punch.

Designed to be eaten out of hand as a healthier alternative to chips or crackers, where Love Corn really shines is in the kitchen, and on the dinner table. Since I could easily pound a full package out of hand, it’s much more gratifying to spread that enjoyment throughout a number of meals. Toss those crunchy kernels into salads instead of bland croutons for an instant upgrade, or top baked potatoes for a crunchy change of pace.

In a pinch, they’ve turned into my mealtime saviors too, rehydrating beautifully in soups and stews, filling the gaps when the produce bin is empty and local corn harvests are still months away. Of course, things get really exciting when you consider the broader flavor options: BBQ, Habanero, and Salt & Vinegar varieties are like built-in flavor bombs with their own seasoning packets. Drop in a pouch and watch any entree come to life. Instant black bean and habanero corn taco filling, anyone? How about BBQ corn chili? Once you start looking at these compact kernels more as meal starters, it’s hard to go back to boring old canned corn.

That’s where the inspiration for these Elote Hush Puppies came from. Looking for a way to use up the last handful of cornmeal in the pantry, it struck me that these little flavor nuggets would be an ideal inclusion on this twisted southern side dish. Traditionally made from a simple corn-based batter, the classic approach is essentially deep-fried cornbread. Bumping up the spices and topping these crispy bites with tofu cotija, however, elevates them to a whole new level.

Taking a page from my favorite Mexican street food, elotes, they’re served alongside vegan mayo for that essential creamy, decadent experience. Technically, I suppose it might be considered esquites since the kernels are cut off the cob, but it’s all done in the same spirit. The combination of cheesy, spicy flavors with a crispy exterior and soft fluffy crumb is utterly irresistible. If you thought that Love Corn was already addictive, you’ll have to be careful with these puppies.

I’m all about spreading the love, so to help you whip up your first batch, I’m thrilled to share a free sample of Love Corn to everyone! You can snag a taste of each flavor when you cover $2.99 for shipping. Now there’s no excuse for settling for subpar snacks.

Whether you crunch right in and eat them straight or use them in grander culinary creations, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with Love Corn. At least, I know I did!

Continue reading “Cornball Humor”

Prince Char-ming

You know what’s really good at True Food Kitchen? Well, everything, but I can’t ever get the charred cauliflower out of my head. Ever since the first time I tried it, I’ve been enamored with this darkly roasted, mysterious dish. Teetering on the edge of burnt but never quite crossing that line, it’s nutty, spicy, crunchy, herbaceous, salty, bold, and VERY sassy. It’s what all cruciferous vegetables aspire to be when they grow up.

You know what’s not so great at True Food Kitchen? Well, at least in downtown Austin, the parking. I have parking PTSD from that whole area; I would genuinely rather walk the 10 miles there and back than negotiate those streets. It’s an infuriating case of “so close, but still so far.”

In any event, it’s just another good reason to stay home, save money, and do it yourself, right?! Hell-bent on satisfying that craving with what was already on hand in the pantry, the results were bound to be different, but equally delicious in an entirely unique way.

Being thrifty and lazy, I’ve made all sorts of egregious substitutions. Peanut butter instead of tahini, sriracha instead of harissa, dried cranberries instead of dates. Is it even the same dish, at the end of the day? Nope, not at all. But is it delicious? Oh yes, hell yes. I’m calling that a success.

Continue reading “Prince Char-ming”